The inside story of how the Union government, experts and automakers have conspired to compromise Delhi's public health and to sabotage the Supreme Court order on CNG

Published: Sunday 30 September 2001


-- The past five months have been incredible. When we launched our campaign for clean air in 1996, with the publication of the book, Slow Murder , we had no idea that we were entering into a realm of high intrigue and deception. In all our years of public work, we had never seen such powerful vested interests at work, and indeed the lengths and depths they are prepared to go to compromise public health.

The one thrill is that we have achieved what we set out to do, at least to some extent. The air of Delhi is cleaner. People can feel the difference. It is not that pollution levels have dropped dramatically, but that we have stemmed the rot and stabilised pollution. Delhi has added over 200,000 vehicles in the last year itself and it has more vehicles than Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai put together. But the capital's pollution levels are coming down unlike the other cities, which are choking and wheezing because of unhealthy air.

The saga of saboteurs has been fascinating learning. When we published our cover story 'Saboteurs' (Down To Earth , Vol 9, No 20, March 15) on the implementation of the Supreme Court (sc) order of July 1998 to convert the Delhi's public transport to compressed natural gas (cng), we hardly noticed the devious role of the greatest saboteur, the ministry of petroleum and natural gas (mpng). Till April 2001, it did nothing -- probably because the ministry's high command did not think the court order would be implemented (as its then secretary pointed out). There was never any question of shortage of gas to supply Delhi and certainly the fact that gas reserves of India were depleting was never the issue. Till March, the disinformation campaign centred on the unreliability of the "untested" technology. cng buses had not made it to the roads in large numbers and experts came up with wild statements that politicians lapped up -- buses would blow up in Delhi's extraordinary summer, the buses would not drive up the inclines of flyovers, etc. But by May, there were enough buses on the roads to vindicate the technology.

Now a new game was in town. We learnt how easy it was to tell a lie and how difficult to dig up the truth. Three main tricks were played. The first strategy was to confuse the public with an alternative that did not exist. The Tata Energy Research Institute (teri) led this plank. It advocated the use of ultra low sulphur diesel (ulsd), which has less than 0.005 per cent sulphur as the alternative in public. But when asked to make a recommendation to the court, through the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (epca), it quietly recommended low sulphur diesel (0.05 per cent) -- which is currently in use in Delhi. The idea of the missing zero was brilliant. It completely confounded the media and, of course, was purposely used by the politicians to promote "clean diesel" which was a fancy terminology for current diesel.

mpng led the second brigade to push the line that there was no gas. Oops, we forgot. Sorry, there is no gas in the country. The Gas Authority of India Ltd (gail), which reports to the petroleum ministry, was given the gag order. The plight of bus and autorickshaw drivers waiting all night, maybe even longer, made hearts bleed. cng was anti-poor. cng was unworkable. Politicians jumped in to fight for justice. The anger against cng grew. Brilliant.

The third plank was to attack cng itself. As the air of Delhi got visibly cleaner, convoluted science and models were used by teri to show that we should forget that we could breathe better. Actually the air was getting worse, they said. If there was any improvement it was because of the monsoon. Forget that the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb) figures showed marked improvements. In this attack, the prestige of an Indian Institute of Technology (iit) was roped in as its professor, Dinesh Mohan, with funds from oil and motor companies went on a binge using assumptions and models to discredit cng . So great was the confusion caused that diesel suddenly was being viewed as clean (it only causes asthma said one newspaper) while cng was the devil (it causes cancer). The Delhi Transport Corporation (dtc), which is certainly not known for its agility of action, was last seen rubbing out the signage on its buses, so that instead of ' cng pollution free bus' it only read as cng bus. Of course, at times with the Freudian slip of the brush, some buses now read, "polluting cng bus."

In all this disinformation was the key. Stories were planted with impunity in the media. For instance, it was widely and frequently reported that the ministry of environment and forests (mef) had filed an affidavit going against its committee, the epca , and that it supported current diesel as a clean fuel. It was said so often that it became the truth, at least in the public mind. We found out later that the ministry had done no such thing. In fact, it had opposed the diesel lobby.

What remains unclear is what solution the anti- cng wallahs are advocating. After all we were not in a high school debate on cng versus diesel. The operation was to find solutions to air pollution in the city. All written presentations to the epca recommended the use of current diesel as clean fuel. There is absolutely no scientific basis that this will reduce air pollution given Delhi's extremely high bus density, pollution levels and growing number of vehicles. teri still advocates ulsd publicly but only because it knows that the government will not import or produce clean, near-sulphurless diesel, and that the technology of particulate traps (which can bring down pollution levels) is still far from being implemented in the country. Tata Engineering (telco) in its written submission to epca also says that in any case it will take two years for it to manufacture a Euro II compliant bus with a simple particulate trap. The mpng, of course, is even more obvious. It wants current diesel and only just that. Nothing more.

"We cannot have buses on one fuel only. No other city in the world has done this. We should not dictate a technology option. Let the market decide. We must have a comprehensive approach." Pearls of wisdom. Who can disagree with their sagacity? But can they be implemented in ungoverned India? Can the court simply say, follow the emission norms, use any technology, just make sure it cleans the air of Delhi? Let there be a mix of cng and diesel buses. Implement your own law. That would be as good as saying, let the government govern. What a good idea!

What will happen next is hard to say. Director-general of teri, R K Pachauri, in a recent article says that public decisions cannot be based on personal ill-health. But then, what should public decisions be based on? Profits, deep pockets?

-- Right To Clean Air Campaign Team
Centre for Science and Environment

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